Not too long ago, Duke’s Mason Plumlee looked like a lock for ACC Player of the Year. Fellow forward Ryan Kelly went out with an injury, opposing defenses concentrated on him more and Plumlee had some bad games. And he became an afterthought.
But make no mistake, Plumlee is still as good as he was back then, and still capable of being dominant. He knows his career is a bad game from him away from being over. He doesn’t want that to happen, and he showed some of that desperation against Albany.
Tonight, though, he’ll be facing off against a Creighton senior big man in Gregory Echenique who is similarly desperate. Even though he had one more year, he was inconsolable after being subbed out in last year’s NCAA Tournament loss to UNC with 1:13 to go.
Echenique, an Honorable Mention All-MVC selection this year, is a 6-foot-9 and 260-pound human wall of cement, banging against opponents down low over and over again until they submit to his will. Despite weighing 260, he has just 7% body fat and has dropped 40 pounds since he got to Creighton. He is thick rather than flabby, a delicate balance many big men can’t quite maintain.
Speaking to him, though, he doesn’t seem like a mindless bruiser at all. The Venezuela native still has traces of an accent, but he’s been in the states since he decided he was going to play basketball and his English is great. And he has mastered the art of describing what it is he does.
“I’m blessed that I’m built for that (physicality) and I weigh a little more than some, so that definitely helps me out,” Echenique said. “At the end of the day, I just hope that they’re more tired than I am and that usually ends up working for me.
“I like a little mental games too but no, I just try to just be smart, just use my body and try to let them know that I’m always there, not to get comfortable. I don’t want them to really get comfortable, so that’s what I try to do.”
Mental games, but not trash talk. The mental games are much more complicated than that, even in the post where it seems like almost anything goes. Echenique said he has gotten very good at the art of playing really rough, then relaxing for a bit, then going hard again. He doesn’t want to reveal a pattern, and it can frustrate opponents trying to get used to him.
Of course, there are consequences to that physical lifestyle. On Saturday, he had a few stitches on the side of his head and some on his eyelid as well. The eyelid was busted during the Cincinnati game by an errant elbow, and the head was from a teammate’s elbow. Echenique has seen his share of elbows, and he knows that’s part of the job.
So that’s just life as Greg Echenique, he was asked?
He grinned. “I guess so,” he said, shrugging. “Apparently, that’s what it’s turned out to be.”
“Echenique” almost sounds like a fragrance, and lord knows most of his opponents will likely smell like Echenique for days after they face him. Even though some manage to make marks on him, they’ll remember that they faced him. And as long as it’s the case, Echenique is happy.
“Yeah, I would take pride in that,” he said. “I hope I can do that again tomorrow. I like playing against bigger guys too, because it’s easier to find their bodies and easier to know where they’re at compared to when you play undersized people. It’s just very exciting for me.”
Plumlee has struggled some with more physical, bruising opponents this year, like Clemson’s Devin Booker. And Plumlee has had his share of bruises this year – most commonly for him are scratches along his arms, some of which are still visible now. Teams will try to do whatever they can to stop him and don’t mind fouling him, as he hasn’t been especially consistent in the free-throw shooting department.
And he knows that there’s no possible way he can bang down low with Echenique for 40 minutes anyway, so he’s going to have to change some things up. “He’s a big, strong guy and we’ll have to get him on the move, keep movement,” Plumlee said. “You can’t just bang with a guy that’s – I don’t know how much he weighs, but you have to do different things.”
Echenique has gone up against elite big men before, and he certainly frustrated UNC’s Tyler Zeller a year ago. He was as physical as anyone was with Zeller throughout his career, and he only got whistled for two fouls. He hopes that the referees let he and Plumlee decide the game rather than calling it tightly, and he’s relishing the chance to bang with one of the nation’s best.
“I’m looking forward to it. I like stuff like that,” Echenqiue said. “Sometimes you’ve got to be careful because of the referees, so you’ve got to see how they’re dictating the game. Hopefully, they’ll let us play a little bit.
“Obviously I know that he’s a good player and they’re going to look for him. He’ll score some. I’ve just got to make sure that they’re not easy buckets, that he doesn’t get going and get his confidence up.”
In North Carolina, Creighton is probably most commonly associated with UNC point guard Kendall Marshall’s season-ending wrist injury that came late in the Tar Heels’ relatively easy second-round win over the Bluejays last year in Greensboro.
Ethan Wragge, who committed the hard foul, might be a more well-known name around Chapel Hill than Creighton star Doug McDermott. As you might imagine, there was some vitriol directed his way.
Naturally, Wragge was still asked about it yesterday during media availability. “I mean, I thought I was making a basketball play,” Wragge said. “We were behind and he kind of had an open lay-up. I was not going to give him a lay-up at that point in the game and let him extend their lead. It was tough how he fell on his wrist.”
The way you view that play – and even that UNC-Creighton game – depends largely on your perspective. In the Triangle, we obsess over all things ACC and more specifically, all things Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State.
The play itself didn’t happen in a vacuum, of course. Senior guard Grant Gibbs hacked at UNC forward John Henson’s injured wrist during a dead ball, prompting a reaction from Henson that got him whistled for a technical foul. Gibbs then winked at Creighton’s bench, suggesting it had been on purpose.
Creighton senior forward Gregory Echenique is a physical force down low at 6-9 and 260 pounds (which seems low). And he sent a message to UNC’s Tyler Zeller early in last year’s game that he wasn’t messing around.
It was somewhat of a surprise to UNC and casual college basketball fans to see a Creighton team with such a great offense and a mediocre defense to suddenly look like the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons. But under third-year head coach Greg McDermott, Creighton is trying to build an identity on not backing down from anyone, regardless of league. The Bluejays are actually 9-1 against BCS-conference teams in the last two seasons, the only loss to UNC.
So for Creighton, last year was a missed opportunity. But Gibbs said that the team learned a valuable lesson during last year’s UNC game, and it’s one they’ve used this year as they find themselves facing a similar opportunity.
“I think we realized that we had to get better defensively as a unit if we were going to get back to that opportunity and hopefully take advantage and to our credit, we have,” Gibbs said. “I think we’re a lot more sound defensively than we were last year. We’ve won some games this year because of our defense. Obviously, we’re going to hang our hat on what we can do offensively, but we had to bring our defense up to get back to this opportunity.”
Creighton has done that. The Bluejays are 71st in defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy, and it’s over 100 spots better than they were a year ago (178th). In McDermott’s first year as head coach, the Bluejays were 175th. So this is a pretty significant jump. And it’s Creighton’s best defensive efficiency ranking since 2008.
Last year, Creighton let UNC shoot nearly 51% from the floor and post an offensive efficiency of 119.0, one of UNC’s best of the season. Creighton has allowed 119 or higher five times this season (and is 2-3 in those games), but Duke has been at 119 or higher in offensive efficiency in 24 of 33 games. So, yeah.
And part of that improvement has come from an increased toughness. Even though Creighton didn’t beat UNC a year ago, it certainly made sure UNC didn’t forget who it had played. And that has nothing to do with the Wragge play. Gibbs was able to goad Henson into getting in his face, while Echenique played as physical a game against Zeller as anyone had all year.
“I don’t think it’s so much a focus that ‘hey, we’ve got to go out there and show that we’re tough’ or anything like that. I think that’s just kind of our style of play a little bit,” Gibbs said.
“That’s always what we try to do and obviously our plan was a little different because the team that North Carolina had that year was different than what Duke has, different style,” Echenique said. “But the toughness aspect, I think it always has to be there.”
Gibbs has not been practicing his wink: “I don’t practice that. It just happens,” he said dryly, with a sly smile. Everything he said seemed to have the hint of a wink to it, and a local beat writer said that Gibbs is essentially Eddie Haskell from Leave it to Beaver.
When Gibbs heard that, he responded simply, “Well, there you go.”
Gibbs probably has no idea who that is, but it’s a pretty apt description: mischievous, yet charming. Annoying. Pesky. Up to no good. After all, he was probably the biggest villain of that UNC game with his wrist-chop on Henson and wink afterwards. Yet somehow, Wragge is the one that ends up being vilified. Haskell stays out of trouble. Again.
Gibbs prides himself on being that guy for the Bluejays, though. “I’m not the most athletically gifted guy, so I’ve got to use my mind and do what I can to get an advantage. So I’ve been known for such acts through the years a little bit.”
When asked if he might try to stomp on Ryan Kelly’s injured foot, he responded as dryly as one might expect. “I don’t know,” he said, feigning thoughtfulness. “I haven’t thought about that a lot. We’ll see.”
After he, McDermott and Echenique got back to the locker room after speaking to the media in an interview room, Gibbs immediately started doing a Coach K impression for his teammates. (And darned if it wasn’t actually spot-on.)
Turns out, Coach K – who had been asked a number of questions about this site’s Cinderella Florida Gulf Coast – pulled the three aside on his way out of the interview room and let them know that he did respect them. He had just been asked an inordinate amount of questions about Florida Gulf Coast.
“He didn’t want us to think that they were underestimating us or anything,” Gibbs said. “I said we should’ve ran with it when we got in there and been like, ‘Coach K’s not giving us any credit. Did you hear his press conference?’ Nobody ran with me on that.”
Gibbs has a bit of Duke Guy in him – the savvy, scrappy white guy who likes to get under his opponent’s skin. His game is as much psychological as it is physical, and in fact Gibbs is overcoming some of his physical limitations (particularly after a number of injuries) to be as effective as he’s been.
So it’s not a huge shock that he grew up with some appreciation for Duke. “I think it was a respect thing more than anything, even growing up, how well-coached they were. I think there was a part of me that like guys like (J.J.) Redick…that people hated and them fueling off that. I definitely respect them,” he said.
And Creighton knows it has to establish that it is ready to play from the opening tip. The Bluejays actually got out to a good start against UNC a year ago and was down by just eight points at halftime. But UNC went on a 9-0 run early in the second half to go up by 19, and that was basically that. It was all it took to put the game essentially out of reach.
This year, when Duke goes on runs, it’s generally very bad news for its opponent. And Creighton knows it can’t let that happen. “We’re going to go out there and throw out the first punch,” Wragge said. “We don’t want to be caught on our heels, especially the way Duke plays. If they get out fast and get on a run, then we could be playing from behind and we don’t want to do that.”
Creighton has the fearless part down. Creighton is still working on the defense part, although Duke presents several unique challenges on that front. Now, Creighton is eager to prove it belongs among the nation’s best, regardless of conference. And they can’t let the Duke name influence how they play.
“We know that they’re very talented – great team, great program, but at the end of the day, we can’t really buy too much into it,” Echenique said. “We’ve just got to know that we’re just playing for the same thing they are and we deserve to be here just as much as they do, so we’ve just got to bring it.”
Erick Green, Virginia Tech
Mason Plumlee, Duke
Shane Larkin, Miami
Richard Howell, N.C. State
Joe Harris, Virginia
This was pretty straightforward, with respect to Seth Curry and Reggie Bullock, both of whom I thought deserved a spot. Ultimately, there wasn’t enough space.
Seth Curry, Duke
Reggie Bullock, North Carolina
Kenny Kadji, Miami
Akil Mitchell, Virginia
Lorenzo Brown, N.C. State
P.J. Hairston, North Carolina
Devin Booker, Clemson
Ryan Anderson, Boston College
Quinn Cook, Duke
Michael Snaer, Florida State
Toughest omissions: Durand Scott (Miami), Dez Wells (Maryland), C.J. Harris (Wake Forest), C.J. Leslie (N.C. State), James Michael McAdoo (North Carolina), Alex Len (Maryland).
Full disclosure: I’m a big believer in tempo-free stats, and those omissions came from a combination of those and, you know, the eye test. I watched a lot of ACC games this year. Consistency also played a role, and defense.
Olivier Hanlan, Boston College
T.J. Warren, N.C. State
Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke
Marcus Paige, North Carolina
Marcus Georges-Hunt, Georgia Tech
Toughest omissions: Devin Thomas (Wake Forest), Robert Carter Jr. (Georgia Tech), Joe Rahon (Boston College).
Daniel Miller, Georgia Tech
Julian Gamble, Miami
Durand Scott, Miami
Michael Snaer, Florida State
Tyler Thornton, Duke
Toughest omissions: Reggie Bullock (North Carolina), Jontel Evans (Virginia), Akil Mitchell (Virginia), Rod Hall (Clemson).
This was the most difficult category for me, and I don’t have a problem admitting that some of those picks might have been wrong.
Freshman of the Year: T.J. Warren, N.C. State.
Consistency and efficiency won the day here, as Warren edged Hanlan of BC. Sulaimon has recently hit the freshman wall, as most freshmen tend to, but he was taken out of the starting lineup and has generally looked frustrated while the other two are closing strongly. Warren was very good most of the year and is starting to hit his stride as a starter, which is part of what put him over the top for me.
Defensive Player of the Year: Julian Gamble, Miami.
I honestly had no idea what to do here, but Gamble has done a great job bothering opposing big men all year and has been very difficult to score against. And considering how much Miami’s defensive numbers have dropped since Gamble left the starting lineup/saw his minutes decrease in favor of Reggie Johnson only helped solidify that opinion. But I am very willing to admit I might have been wrong.
Coach of the Year: Jim Larranaga, Miami.
This seemed like a no-brainer until very recently, when it looked like Miami might not win the outright ACC regular-season title. Still, a weak ending to the season doesn’t take away from the body of work. And he has had this Miami team playing defense at a very high level, believing in each other and being unselfish. They’ve been very tough to beat most of this year, and he’s a big reason for that. Sure, they’re older, and experienced. But Frank Haith had older, tough-minded teams at Miami. They didn’t play like this.
(Side note: Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski and Tony Bennett also did some nice things this season.)
Player of the Year: Erick Green, Virginia Tech.
A lot of my case was made for Green here, but I’ll add this: the ACC Player of the Year award is not the Most Valuable Player. If it were, I would have gone with Shane Larkin. Green averages nearly double the amount of points as Larkin, is more efficient and has a higher assist rate despite having MUCH worse teammates. Larkin’s a better defender, but not significantly.
I tend to err on the side of picking a POY from a winning ACC team, preferably a team that wins the league (or at least a top-five team). It takes a very strong effort from a guy on a last-place team (or close to last) to even merit consideration, much less win it. He has to be significantly ahead of the pack. And Green was that guy to me, based on a combination of statistics and my judgment from watching him.
He did all he could to make his teammates better (compared to another high-volume scorer from last year, about whom his coach said “I can’t coach him”). That, combined with no one else on the top-five teams jumping up to grab the award (at least in my estimation), led to my vote. Reasonable minds can disagree, of course.
No. 1 Duke (11-0) vs. Davidson (7-5), 7:00 PM, ESPN3 (Charlotte)
What to watch: Duke’s three-point defense. Duke’s had some dicey moments in the past two games against Elon and Santa Clara, and all those moments have come courtesy of their opponents hitting three-pointers. Those teams combined to make 16-of-45 (35.6%) over the last two games after Duke held opponents to 29.7% in the first nine games. Davidson will have to hit three’s (a lot of them) to keep this game close, and the Wildcats are making 38.8% from beyond the arc this year.
Mason Plumlee. Not many teams have anyone that can guard the 6-10 big man, who’s playing as well as anyone in the country right now, but Davidson certainly doesn’t have more than one (6-10 Jake Cohen). Duke needs to feed Plumlee early and often and exploit that advantage. If there’s anything to nitpick with Plumlee’s game recently, it’s that he’s made just 21-of-37 free throws (56.8%) over the last four games, but he’s shooting so well from the field that it really hasn’t mattered much, and Davidson only has so many fouls to give anyway.
Random Davidson facts: Davidson earned the Wildcat nickname back in 1917 when just 22 football players traveled to Atlanta to play Auburn, a team that had outscored its first six opponents 141-6. Davidson was just 2-4, but somehow they won 21-7. Atlanta sportswriters dubbed them the Wildcats because of their “ferocity”. Davidson had a live wildcat until the late 1960s, and they used to feed it by putting live chickens in its cage. Can’t imagine why that wouldn’t fly today.
Prediction: Duke, 87-72. Davidson might keep it close for awhile – it’s pretty clear the Blue Devils are ready for ACC play at this point, and Bob McKillop is a good coach – but Duke should win this one relatively comfortably.
UT-Chattanooga (5-8) at Georgia Tech (9-2), 7:00 PM, ESPN3
What to watch: Robert Carter, Jr. The freshmen was inconsistent to start the year and had just two double-digit scoring games in the first seven. But he’s averaging 13.8 points on 63% shooting in the last four games to go with 7.8 rebounds. Carter gives Georgia Tech yet another good post player, but he can shoot from three and his diverse skill set is something Georgia Tech doesn’t really have right now anywhere else on the floor. The Yellow Jackets need all the offense they can get.
Random UT-Chattanooga facts: Now, this is how you transition from an offensive Indian mascot to a real one. Chattanooga was known as the Moccasins, but in 1996, they had to change their name. They shortened it to “Mocs” and a mockingbird is their mascot. The mockingbird head is shaped like the state of Tennessee. Yeah, it’s kind of a lame mascot. But hey, at least it makes sense and preserves the history of the old one.
Prediction: Georgia Tech, 77-54. The Yellow Jackets are starting to click, and Chattanooga is awful.
Xavier (6-5) at Wake Forest (6-5), 7:00 PM, ESPN3
What to watch: The Wake Forest defense. To say Xavier has been struggling offensively as of late would be putting it mildly, but the Musketeers have the talent to be able to turn it around. And Wake has had issues of its own defensively. Wake’s opponents are shooting 44% from the floor, and the Deacons have allowed 48% shooting in five losses.
The foul line. Wake’s free-throw rate, per Ken Pom, is second-best in the country. And it’s a good thing, too: the Deacons score over a quarter of their points from the foul line. But Xavier isn’t letting opponents get to the line much. Wake Forest has won just two games this year when it hasn’t made at least 20 free throws.
Random Xavier facts: Yes, Xavier has a Musketeer mascot named D’Artagnan (so creative). But the most famous mascot is the Blue Blob, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s beloved around campus despite having absolutely no meaning whatsoever.
And then Xavier head coach Chris Mack involved the Blue Blob in this very regrettable “Call Me Maybe” parody:
Prediction: Xavier, 65-59. Wake has struggled offensively against athletic opponents this year, and this game should be no different.
Florida State (8-4) at Auburn (5-7), 7:00 PM, Fox Sports South
What to watch: How far has Florida State’s defense come? Because Auburn’s offense is terrible. Florida State is so young that head coach Leonard Hamilton hasn’t been able to install all the defensive looks he usually uses. (This great piece by Michael Rogner from the Run The Floor blog takes a look at how gradually, Hamilton has trusted this team more and more defensively.) After holding just three of its first seven opponents to below 40% shooting, three of its last four opponents have shot below 40% (FSU has won four straight).
Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Auburn isn’t great defensively, but they force a decent amount of turnovers (23%) and Florida State will turn it over against teams that aren’t good at forcing them. FSU has averaged 13.3 turnovers during this four-game winning streak after averaging 17 turnovers in the first eight. FSU tends to turn it over in bunches when it does happen, and they can’t do that in a road game against an opponent that won’t go away.
Random Auburn facts: The War Eagle has been explained before, so we’ll look at Aubie the Tiger’s origins. He was only around as a cartoon on the cover of the game programs for nearly 20 years starting in 1959. In 1979, they made him a real costume based on the older game programs and it’s been winning mascot national titles ever since. Auburn may or may not have had a live tiger mascot for at least one game.
Prediction: Florida State, 73-62. It would be way too predictable for Florida State to inexplicably lose this game for the second time in the last three years, right?
La Salle (9-2) at Miami (8-3), 9:00 PM, RSN
What to watch: Can Miami beat a decent team without one of its starters? Before the Diamond Head Classic over Christmas, Miami’s one loss – early, to Florida Gulf Coast – was explained away by the absence of guard Durand Scott. Then, just before the Christmas tournament began, center Reggie Johnson broke his thumb and he will miss six weeks. The Hurricanes promptly lost both games. They’re going to be without him for a good chunk of ACC play and may lose some games during that time. After losses to Arizona and Indiana State (the former a blowout), they can’t afford to drop a home game to La Salle at this point if they want to make the NCAA Tournament.
Random La Salle facts: The Explorers are so named because of a Philadelphia sportswriter’s mistake (yeah, yeah): he thought the university was named after french explorer Sieur de La Salle. It’s named after St. Jean-Baptiste de la Salle. Well, at least they have a cool mascot anyway. And you can’t think of explorers without thinking of conquering indigenous peoples, which is at least a little intimidating. Recently, though, they did try to make the explorer look like a superhero instead.
Prediction: Miami, 66-58. At some point, Miami’s going to have to win without some of its players in the lineup. Their other players are good enough to do it.
Last week: 10-4
Santa Clara (11-2) at No. 1 Duke (11-0), 12:00 PM, ESPN2
What to watch: Santa Clara’s Mark Trasolini versus Ryan Kelly. He’s not the Broncos’ leading scorer, but the 6-9 senior forward is the most efficient scorer, averaging 16.3 points on 57% shooting. In Santa Clara’s two losses, he has shot just 3-of-10 from the floor. In the last three games, he has averaged 23.7 points on over 68% shooting, adding 4-of-6 three-pointers, 7.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks. Duke’s Ryan Kelly has held some good opposing big men (and versatile big men at that) to low point totals this year, and Duke’s going to need his defense yet again against a sneaky-good Santa Clara squad.
Random Santa Clara facts: In the mid-1960s, Santa Clara had a live bronco (briefly) that was so strong, he could pull a section of folded bleachers unassisted. The handler discovered this after he tied him to the bleachers while he went to get a hot dog, only to come back when he heard the crowd roaring as the bronco was running across the field). At least they were empty?
Prediction: Duke, 95-73. Both of Santa Clara’s losses have come in overtime, but their best win was over St. Louis early this year. Still, the Broncos have had a relatively easy time of it since and have dominated some decent teams. But this is at Duke, and the Blue Devils are rolling.
Western Michigan (8-4) at No. 23/25 NC State (9-2), 12:00 PM, ESPNU
What to watch: The foul line. If there’s been an area to quibble with NC State offensively this year, it’s the free-throw shooting. The Wolfpack is one of the most efficient teams in the league offensively, and would probably hold the league’s top mark in that category if it could shoot free throws. NC State has hit the 70% mark from the line just three times this season and is shooting 64% on the year, good for 282nd nationally according to Ken Pomeroy. But their free-throw rate is top-50 nationally, and the offense is predicated on being aggressive and getting to the line. If State stops leaving points at the foul line, its offense – which is already scary good – will become even more so.
Random Western Michigan facts: WMU used to be known as the Hilltoppers, but that led to some understandable confusion with fellow Hilltopper schools. (Also, WMU expanded beyond the hills and their tops.) They adopted the Bronco in the late 1980s, and he looks….well….sleepy.
And if you needed to know anything about parking on WMU’s campus (and ridiculously short shorts), check out this 1982 video! (Side note: I think Buster Bronco finds this video HILARIOUS. No reason.)
Prediction: NC State, 87-63. Even if the Wolfpack shows up sluggish after the holiday break, Western Michigan isn’t the type of team that can take advantage of its weaknesses.
Delaware State (5-7) at Maryland (10-1), 12:30 PM, ESPN3
What to watch: Maryland’s turnovers. The Terrapins don’t force a lot of turnovers, and they don’t have to because their defense is good enough. But they can’t afford to keep turning it over, either. Maryland’s defense has the lowest loss of ball percentage in the league (12.7%), but their 0.746 PPP allowed is one of the best marks. Still, Maryland’s loss of ball on offense (18.82%) is only better than Wake Forest and Florida State so far this year. Maryland has shown a tendency to get sloppy at times this year. If they want to be an upper-echelon ACC team (and they’re more than capable of being just that), they won’t be able to get away with turning it over on nearly a fifth of their offensive possessions.
Random Delaware State facts: Delaware State has tweaked its mascot in recent years, and the current hornet iteration is known as “Too-Fly”. And he had a high standard of flyness to live up to:
Prediction: Maryland, 87-65. The Hornets did knock off in-state rival Delaware recently (side note: things have gone downhill from the Blue Hens since beating UVa). But half of their wins are against non-Division I opponents.
Florida State (7-4) vs. Tulsa (7-5), 2:00 PM, FSN (Sunrise, FL)
What to watch: Has Michael Snaer flipped the switch? The senior guard sat out FSU’s win against Louisiana-Monroe due to “disciplinary reasons”, and whatever his head coach Leonard Hamilton did or said seems to have worked. He’s always been an elite defender, and it’s been obvious that he has struggled to take on his newfound role as an assertive scorer. But he has to do that for Florida State to win, and he did against Charlotte last week. He had 30 points on 8-of-19 shooting, his best shooting percentage since late November. In his last two games he has played in – Charlotte and Maine – he has taken 37 shots, a third of his season total. In FSU’s losses, he has shot nearly five fewer times on average than in FSU’s wins. And he’s going to have to keep it up as his young teammates come along.
Random Tulsa facts: The Golden Hurricane mascot used to be an actual hurricane. Now, it’s “Captain Cane”, who carries a a “hurricane-summoning sword” and wears “energy-sourcing thunder boots”. Well, okay then. The change was made when current UNC AD Bubba Cunningham was the AD at Tulsa.
Prediction: Florida State, 76-68. Without the loss to Mercer, maybe FSU wouldn’t seem like its struggling so much. The Seminoles would have then only lost to Minnesota and Florida since their season-opening loss to South Alabama. Sadly, Mercer ddi happen, and so did some struggles against Maine and Louisiana Monroe. Still, Tulsa hasn’t beaten anyone as good as FSU this year.
Holy Cross (7-5) at Boston College (6-5), 2:00 PM, ESPN3
What to watch: BC’s freshmen. Joe Rahon and Olivier Hanlan have combined to play nearly a third of BC’s available minutes this year (and attempt nearly a third of their shots), but neither have shot particularly well, especially lately. Obviously, both have to play but Hanlan is shooting just 16-of-51in the last four games and Rahon is shooting 7-of-31 in the last three. Both are going to continue to play a lot – and take a lot of shots – but at some point it would help the Eagles if they start, you know, making a few more.
Random Holy Cross facts: Why is Holy Cross known as the Crusaders? If you know anything about history, it’s fairly obvious. Let’s just watch some knight videos.
Now stand aside, worthy adversary. …. Runnin’ away, eh?
Also….NI! BRING HOLY CROSS PLAYERS A SHRUBBERY!
And then there’s this.
BC had just better make sure they choose, and choose wisely.
Prediction: Boston College, 61-55. When Boston College beat Providence last week, it was the highest-ranked Ken Pomeroy team (62nd) the Eagles had beaten since knocking off then-No. 24 FSU on February 8, 2012 (of course, BC won only nine games last season). So, progress?
No. 20/17 UNLV (11-1) at North Carolina (9-3), 2:00 PM, ESPN2
What to watch: Carolina’s bigs versus UNLV. The Runnin’ Rebs will be shorthanded as forward Mike Moser should miss the game with a dislocated elbow (he’s listed as questionable), and he had 16 points and 18 rebounds in UNLV’s upset win over UNC last season. Freshman forward Anthony Bennett leads the nation’s rookies in scoring, averaging 19.5 points per game and 8.5 rebounds. They have plenty of other capable big men, including versatile Khem Birch, a Pitt transfer who can shoot three’s, and senior Quintrell Thomas. UNC’s rotating group of centers: Joel James, Desmond Hubert and Brice Johnson – haven’t been all that consistent or effective, and James Michael McAdoo has struggled against some big-time opponents. The Tar Heels will have their hands full with one of the best players in the nation in Bennett, not to mention his teammates.
Reggie Bullock. There weren’t many positives Carolina could take from its loss to Texas, but Carolina’s junior leader stepping up and attempting a season-high 17 shots should be one of them. He wasn’t great – he hit just six of those attempts – but he got to the line six times (also a season-high) and for the first time, he showed he’s willing to be the guy who steps up in big moments for Carolina. Just because he steps up doesn’t mean he’ll come through, or that Carolina will win. But someone has to be willing to do it consistently.
Random UNLV facts: UNLV adopted the Rebel nickname because they were “rebelling” against the flagship, Nevada-Reno. They adopted a shark mascot in honor of former head coach Jerry “The Shark” Tarkanian, but that has since gone away. But at least it gives us a chance to link these awesome videos!
The landshark eats someone.
Which also allows us to link this, one of the best SNL skits ever.
Prediction: UNLV, 77-72. The Tar Heels really need this win, but I haven’t seen anything from them so far to lead me to believe they’ll get it.
Virginia Tech (9-3) at BYU (9-4), 2:00 PM, ESPNU
What to watch: Tempo. The Hokies want to go up-tempo, but can they really hang with a team like BYU? The Cougars are not a great team this year, but they’re good enough and still one of the fastest teams in the country. Virginia Tech has shown flashes of being good in transition, but the Hokies are dangerously thin and that sort of tempo might wear them down.
Anyone other than Erick Green. Seriously. Anyone. Here’s a stat comparison for you from the last three games:
A: 33-63 FG (52.4%), 4-15 3-pt (26.7%), 15-20 FT (75.0%), 85 points (28.3 ppg)
B: 36-114 FG (31.6%), 12-49 3-pt (24.5%), 22-38 FT (57.9%), 106 points (35.3 ppg)
“A” is Green. “B” is the rest of his teammates combined. Yeah. Cadarian Rains had a good game against Bradley, but was a combined 1-of-3 in the other two games sandwiching it. Robert Brown has made just four of his last 30 field-goal attempts and has ten points in the last four games. Jarrell Eddie has been up and down, but at least he’s hit double figures in three straight games. Freshman forward Marshall Wood broke his foot and while he wasn’t a huge contributor (5.8 points), he was averaging 18 minutes. The Hokies weren’t deep to begin with: Christian Beyer, a seldom-used reserve until recently, has seen 52 minutes in the last two games (he still has not made a field goal this year).
Random BYU facts: BYU is not going to change its Cougar mascot anytime soon, but it’s already being rejected as a high school mascot because of its offensive connotations. For those of you who don’t know what a cougar refers to, it’s…forget it, I’ll refer you to Urban Dictionary.
Prediction: BYU, 89-68. Just difficult to see the Hokies being able to win this one with as badly as their supporting cast has looked recently.
Fordham (3-9) at Georgia Tech (8-2), 7:00 PM, ESPN3
What to watch: Some semblance of an offense for Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech is one of the beat teams in the country defensively this year (statistically), but the offense is still coming around. As the From the Rumble Seat blog points out, Georgia Tech is starting to shoot better. But the Yellow Jackets being without Jason Morris (plantar fasciatis) and incorporating some new pieces hasn’t made it any easier, either. Georgia Tech doesn’t have a great win, but it doesn’t have a bad loss. Win these last two non-conference games, make some noise in the ACC and the Yellow Jackets could be looking at an NCAA Tournament bid. If they can get to even a decent level offensively, they could be tough to beat.
Random Fordham facts: The ram nickname came from an 1893 football game, when the students chanted “One dam, two dams, three dams, FORDHAM!” The Jesuit staff didn’t care for that kind of foul language, so they changed “dam” to “ram”. They’ve had live rams over the years, and in the late 1950’s, one of said rams lived in a “1,200-cubic-foot brick hut” built by Grace Kelly’s father. That same ram liked to enjoy “a lager or two” after games in his elaborate Ram Mansion.
Prediction: Georgia Tech, 84-55. Fordham is awful, but especially defensively. Georgia Tech should put up some points.
Wofford (6-6) at Virginia (9-3), 1:00 PM, RSN
What to watch: UVa’s big men. Virginia made just 38% of its two-pointers in the loss to Old Dominion, a season-low. A big reason for that is how much their starting frontcourt, Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins, struggled. Both have been much-improved this year, but Mitchell shot just 3-of-10 and had eight points (just his second time this season in single digits) and Atkins was 2-of-6 for four points, his fewest since November 12. Both of them combined shot worse from inside the arc than their teammates combined. Wofford is not a defensive juggernaut by any means, but the reason UVa had started to play so well this season was the improvement of Mitchell and Atkins. The Cavaliers will struggle to beat even decent teams like Wofford – and particularly in ACC play – if that doesn’t continue.
Random Wofford facts: We’ve covered the origin of the Terrier here before, and yes, it’s one of the cutest mascots around. So instead of that, here are Wofford students teaching rats to play basketball!
Prediction: UVa, 61-49. In an under-the-radar result, Wofford beat Xavier last Saturday. Virginia hasn’t looked very good as of late. But every time we want to count the Cavaliers out, they win a game they have to win, and this one qualifies.
Last week: 10-4
Clemson (6-3) at Coastal Carolina (3-5), 7:00 PM, ESPN3
What to watch: Clemson’s offense. Coastal Carolina is not very good defensively, allowing nearly 44% shooting. But more importantly, the Tigers need to get going offensively. The Tigers actually started out the year doing pretty well in that department, but after averaging 74.5 points in their first two games, they averaged 59.3 in their next six (three losses). They seemingly got back on track against Florida A&M, scoring a season-high 80 points and shooting nearly 53 percent. Clemson is taking good care of the ball this season and playing pretty good defense – they just need to knock down a few shots.
Random Coastal Carolina facts: Does it seem odd that two South Carolina-based schools have a rooster for a mascot? It’s not a coincidence! Coastal Carolina is an affiliate of South Carolina, so it decided to pick a somewhat similar mascot: the Chanticleer, made famous in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Unfortunately, things don’t end so well for that rooster.
Prediction: Clemson, 73-58. It could be ugly – with Clemson, it too often is – but it should be a win.
Cornell (4-6) at No. 1 Duke (9-0), 7:00 PM, ESPNU
What to watch: Marshall Plumlee. It’s been widely reported that the redshirt freshman big man, whose older brother Mason is having a breakout season, could make his Duke debut tonight. He had a stress fracture in his foot that has sidelined him until now. It will be difficult for him to permanently crack the rotation at this point in the season barring an injury to someone already in the rotation. But he has a lot of talent, and Duke could really use some depth in the frontcourt.
Random Cornell facts: Cornell is known as the Big Red, but their unofficial mascot is the Big Red Bear. It’s been around since 1905. Cornell is a pretty intelligent school, and unlike some, it only took them until 1939 to realize having a live bear is not a good idea. Touchdown I was the craziest – he climbed the goalposts, ran amok in an Atlantic City taffy shop and knocked the Penn mascot out with his paw.
Prediction: Duke, 92-59. Cornell has been competitive against everyone except Wisconsin and Stony Brook. But the Big Red is awful on offense, and not much better defensively.
Morgan State (3-4) at Virginia (8-2), 7:00 PM, ESPN3
What to watch: A sneaky test for Virginia’s defense. The Bears aren’t a great team by any stretch, but they have some nice numbers this year. They rebound the ball offensively very well, get to the foul line a lot and make a lot of two-pointers. UVa has been getting better and better defensively all year, and that needs to continue for Virginia to go from being an okay ACC team to a very good one. (And by “very good”, I mean “has a legitimate chance to make the NCAA Tournament”).
Random Morgan State facts: Morgan State’s mascot is a bear. And it’s kind of insane.
How many bear mascots can do this?
Prediction: Virginia, 79-59. As UVa’s freshmen continue to get comfortable and their upperclassmen step up, the Cavaliers are getting better and better as the season goes.
No. 23/19 North Carolina (8-2) at Texas (6-4), 9:00 PM, ESPN2
What to watch: North Carolina’s offense. The Tar Heels have been stagnant at times offensively, and even though Texas has looked downright awful at times, their defense has been fairly consistent. They have the No. 1 effective field goal defense in the country per Ken Pomeroy, and they’re No. 3 in three-point defense (22.3% allowed) and fifth in two-point defense (37.6%). Carolina is shooting nearly 37% from the three-point line, but they’ve been a bit streaky. Against Butler, Carolina had three different droughts of three or more minutes where they scored two or fewer points. At Indiana – one of two true road games for Carolina this year – the Tar Heels were outscored by 23 points in 12:41 (a stretch that spanned both halves) and hit just two field goals in that span. Carolina shot 2-of-24 from the floor.
Forcing turnovers. North Carolina’s going to have to do this: Texas is turning it over on over a quarter of their possessions this year, and it’s a big reason the Longhorns have struggled so much. The Tar Heels have done a pretty good job of that this year, but when they haven’t – two games so far – the results were an Indiana loss and a close win over ECU. Forcing turnovers is also the one area where Texas hasn’t been dominant defensively as well. North Carolina can’t afford to give the ball away when Texas isn’t forcing a ton of turnovers as it is, especially since Texas’ defense seems to be making it difficult enough to score in the half-court already.
Random Texas facts: The live Longhorn mascot Bevo is bred to be docile, but he hasn’t always been. He once attacked an SMU cheerleader who tried to fend him off with his megaphone. In 1999, after Texas beat Nebraska, he was led across the field and did this:
Prediction: North Carolina, 63-54. Difficult to predict this one, especially since Texas head coach Rick Barnes always seems to find a way to beat North Carolina, even when the Tar Heels are arguably the better team. Last year, Carolina thumped Texas at home though. Neither team is remotely the same right now, but Carolina has looked like the better team thus far. Mostly because they haven’t lost to Chaminade.
Last week: 12-1
Cleveland State (6-2) at No. 25/24 NC State (5-2), 2:00 PM, ESPN3
What to watch: NC State’s three-point defense. NC State’s opponents are scoring nearly 32% of their points from behind the arc, even if they aren’t hitting a high percentage (33.1%). But in the last four games (all either close wins or losses), opponents have hit nearly 38 percent. UConn hit the lowest percentage (34.8%), but NC State also fouled UConn on a three-pointer twice in the final 3:09 (UConn hit four of those six free throws). Counting those, UConn scored over 43% of their points on three-point attempts. Cleveland State is hitting 36.7% of its three’s, and the Vikings are a solid team. If NC State doesn’t guard the three-point line, Cleveland State could keep the game close the same way UNC-Asheville did.
Random Cleveland State facts: Cleveland State was known as Fenn College from 1923-64, and when it was Fenn College, they were the Fenn Foxes. Now, they’re the Vikings. Boo. More teams besides Marist should be named “Fox”.
Also, look at these pranksters!
Prediction: NC State, 82-64. NC State won a tough game against Connecticut that they might not have a year ago. After some early tests, the Wolfpack is ready to win a game like this convincingly against a decent team at home.
South Carolina State (4-4) at Maryland (7-1), 2:00 PM, ESPN3
What to watch: Pe’Shon Howard. Howard has had a great season in terms of assists (49) and turnovers (15), but the junior point guard hasn’t made a shot since November 20th. He’s shooting just 3-of-21 this season. He played just nine minutes in the rout of UMES, but head coach Mark Turgeon said he was dealing with a stomach issue. Turgeon’s lineup tweaks seem more experimental, but Howard ideally needs to become a scoring threat. Freshman Seth Allen and even starting guard Nick Faust ran the point some against UMES. Howard is the best option, but if injury or illness keeps him out – as it has before – he could get Wally Pipped.
Random South Carolina State facts: Bulldogs? Not a great mascot. But the South Carolina State band/dancers/whatever brings it, always. I’m not sure they’ll bring these girls with them, which is probably for the best if Maryland doesn’t want to get distracted.
And this is officially my favorite band ever. Pretty Brown Eyes!
Prediction: Maryland, 95-63. The best team South Carolina State has played so far is Albany. They lost by 25 points. Also, Ken Pomeroy ranks 347 D-I schools. UMES is 345th. South Carolina State is 343rd.
St. Francis (NY) (2-4) at Boston College (3-5), 2:00 PM, ESPN3
What to watch: Boston College’s defense. Just, any defense would be fine. Harvard was pretty anemic offensively before hosting BC, when they put up 79 points and shot 55% from the floor. BC isn’t forcing many turnovers, so the least the Eagles have to do is guard the ball better. Or, just, at all. Or they’ll lose, even a game like this one.
Random St. Francis (NY) facts: I couldn’t find the reason that the school chose the Terrier mascot in 1933. So instead, I give you this:
In case y’all haven’t heard, though, the Terriers are coming. Or they were in 2010-11.
Prediction: Boston College, 71-65. The only team that has made easy work of St. Francis so far is Illinois. Army, Norfolk State and Albany beat St. Francis by a combined 18 points. This won’t be an easy one for BC. But then again, what game is?
No. 2 Duke (8-0) vs. Temple (6-0), 3:15 PM, ESPN (East Rutherford)
What to watch: How elite has Duke’s perimeter become? Mason Plumlee has been terrific this season, but the reason Duke has been great is because he has help. Last year, Duke lost to Temple and the Owls had five in double figures (led by two-guard Khalif Wyatt’s 22 points). Duke saw 33 of its 73 points scored by Mason and Miles Plumlee, who had 16 and 17, respectively. But no Blue Devil could slow down any of Temple’s guards, who did whatever they wanted offensively. All five of Duke’s guards had 28 points on 9-of-30 shooting.
This year, Duke has balance on both ends of the court. Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook have taken a lot of pride in defending on the perimeter, and Seth Curry has gotten better at it but is still limited physically. If Duke is going to be one of the nation’s best teams – which they look like right now – they’ll have to handle yet another tough test.
Random Temple facts: We’ve highlighted the Owl mascot in this space before. Fortunately for Temple’s mascot, it doesn’t live in Colombia. Or else it would have been kicked by this soccer player.
Hooter the Owl does celebrate its birthday every year, and other mascots come to join. There are some weird mascots out there.
Prediction: Duke, 81-70. This is just another stop on the Duke basketball revenge tour.
Mississippi Valley State (0-4) at Virginia (7-2), 4:00 PM, ESPN3
What to watch: The UVa freshmen. While they helped carry the team early, they haven’t been as efficient of late and as a result, haven’t played as much. Evan Nolte and Justin Anderson combined to average 14.3 points in 48.3 minutes in UVa’s first six games, but in the last three, they’ve combined for 6.7 points in just 25.3 minutes. Mike Tobey has played a total of 20 minutes in the last three games (after averaging 13.3 in the first six) and has just five points. Really, only backup point guard Teven Jones has seen consistent minutes, and that’s only because of the injury to starter Jontel Evans. This is the type of game that can allow the freshmen to get back on track, because UVa will need them going forward.
Random Mississippi Valley State facts: South Carolina State isn’t the only school with a great band/dancers.
Known as “The Mack of the SWAC”, Mississippi Valley State’s band even did a halftime performance blindfolded.
Prediction: Virginia, 73-47. Mississippi State is 0-4 this year and their closest loss was by 13 to Northwestern. It’s that bad. Although for some reason, the Delta Devils aren’t giving themselves a break – they’ll face Virginia Tech next, and won’t play a game they’re expected to win until early 2013, which will also be their first home game. Ouch.
Virginia Tech (7-0) at West Virginia (3-3), 4:00 PM, ESPN2
What to watch: Virginia Tech on the defensive glass. West Virginia retrieves nearly 41% of its available missed shots, while Virginia Tech is allowing opponents to get just 27.6% of their misses. Against their last two opponents, Virginia Tech has a defensive rebounding percentage of 75.3%, which is excellent. They’ll have to keep that up against the Mountaineers, who don’t often make their first attempt.
Erick Green. Can he keep carrying the Hokies? He was in foul trouble early against Oklahoma State and Virginia Tech trailed as a result. In 26 minutes, he had 28 points and seven rebounds, picking up just one more foul the rest of the way. He’s been phenomenal. But is it asking too much of him to continue being this brilliant? We’ll find out.
Random West Virginia facts: In 1998, a University of Miami assistant coach announced he was suing West Virginia for a 1996 incident where he was hit on the head with a trash can. He alleged that the university failed to adequately protect the visiting team. The injury was reported originally as a bruise, but the lawsuit said he was “severely and permanently” injured. He and West Virginia settled. That assistant coach? Randy Shannon.
Prediction: Virginia Tech, 71-65. Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I think the Hokies – should they still healthy – can beat anyone they play this year. West Virginia is a tough place to play, but the Mountaineers have not looked very good so far.
Seton Hall (6-2) at Wake Forest (4-4), 7:00 PM, ESPN3
What to watch: Seton Hall’s three-point percentage. The Pirates are making 38.9% of their three-pointers, 39th in the country, and scoring 36.6% of all their points from three. Wake Forest has been mediocre at best defending the three, but they’ve been better lately: Wake’s last four opponents have made 29.2% of their three’s. If Seton Hall goes crazy from three, Wake will be in danger of being blown out at home. But what else is new, I guess?
Random Seton Hall facts: As usual, the original nickname is often better than the current one: Seton Hall was known as the Villagers for awhile. And as usual, a sportswriter’s random naming of the team is the one that stuck.
Prediction: Seton Hall, 72-59. Seton Hall doesn’t have any great wins or awful losses, but Wake Forest has no good wins and some awful losses.
UNC Wilmington (4-4) at Georgia Tech (5-2), 7:00 PM, ESPN3
What to watch: Can Georgia Tech score? The Yellow Jackets are fantastic defensively yet again, but at some point, they’re going to have to put up points. They finally started hitting some three-pointers against Georgia, which is a good sign. But they only hit 7-of-27 two-point attempts, which is beyond terrible, and had just ten points in the paint. They’re going to have to develop something consistent on offense that ensures they won’t be in any 40-point affairs this year.
Random UNC Wilmington facts: The sea hawk mascot has gone through a lot of changes over the years, but the late 80’s version (see above) was probably my favorite. Although this one is also strong:
Prediction: Georgia Tech, 79-52. They’re hitting three-pointers now – the rest will come.
East Tennessee State (2-4) at No. 20/16 North Carolina (6-2), 7:30 PM, ESPN3
What to watch: North Carolina’s defense. UAB is an up-tempo squad that presented some matchup problems for North Carolina, but the Tar Heels still allowed the Blazers to score 84 points, the most they have allowed this year. UNC’s last four opponents have combined to shoot 45-of-106 (42.5%) from three and average 0.89 points per possession. In Carolina’s first four games, opponents shot 24% from three and averaged 0.65 points per possession. Obviously, the caliber of opponent was significantly different in the first four games than in the last four. But if this UNC team – which will be hot and cold offensively all year – doesn’t make defense a priority, they’re going to lose some games they shouldn’t. Not this one, but prioritizing defense starts in games like this.
Random East Tennessee State facts: It makes perfect sense that a pirate would be the mascot of a land-locked school in Tennessee. After all, an old pirate supposedly hid some of his gold there in a creek once. A creek that went all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. There’s a new pirate in town, and he has a blue face.
Prediction: North Carolina, 82-59. Fortunately for the Tar Heels, East Tennessee State is pretty bad offensively. They’ve had a week off, and while they may be rusty at first, they should still play good, hard-nosed defense.
No. 8 Arizona (6-0) at Clemson (5-2), ESPN2, 8:00 PM
What to watch: Clemson’s three-point defense. Arizona is scoring 33.7% of its points from three and making 41.7% of its three-point attempts, and they take a lot. Clemson is allowing just 30% shooting from three, but they haven’t played a great-shooting team so far. Still, Brad Brownell’s teams traditionally play very good defense, but Purdue went to Clemson and made 8-of-18 three’s (44.4%) in one of Clemson’s two losses. They’ll have to at least contest Arizona’s three’s to have a chance to knock off the Wildcats at home.
Clemson’s changing roster. Starting guard T.J. Sapp decided to transfer earlier this week. Will freshmen Adonis Filer and Jordan Roper be able to step up and fill that role, since they had already been getting the majority of Sapp’s minutes? Milton Jennings is expected to return to the lineup after a suspension. Will he be able to have an impact?
Random Arizona facts: Rufus, the first wildcat mascot, came to campus in 1915. The freshman football team raised the money ($9.91) to buy him. A little over a year later, though, this happened:
…while endeavoring to perform gymnastic stunts in the limbs of a tree to which he was tied, Rufus Arizona… fell and was hung.
Prediction: Arizona, 79-64. The Wildcats haven’t really beaten anyone good yet, and they’ve only played one team away from home. But they’ve beaten most opponents fairly handily and been incredibly efficient offensively. It would take quite the effort by Clemson to knock off Arizona, and they’re not nearly ready enough to do that.
Maine at Florida State (4-4), ESPNU, 4:00 PM
What to watch: FSU giving up extra possessions. Charting possessions using offensive rebounds as a possession (as I do), over 36% of FSU’s opponent’s possessions have come off of FSU turnovers or opponent offensive rebounds. Opponents have turned those into 0.96 points per possession. Florida scored 0.59 points per possession on possessions not off an FSU turnover or a Florida offensive rebound, but turned their offensive rebounds and FSU turnovers (35 total) into 46 points (1.3 per possession). Giving up a lot of opportunities to opponents has really hurt FSU so far, even against bad teams.
Random Maine facts: The Maine fight song was a No. 1 hit in 1930!
Prediction: Florida State, 84-61. No, seriously FSU. You need to win this one big.
Last week: 14-2
It hasn’t been easy for Alex Murphy to adjust to life on the bench. His limited playing time has been somewhat of a surprise, because the redshirt freshman was a preseason starter and someone who Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski compared favorably to former Duke star Kyle Singler.
He has been a healthy scratch twice this year, including in the season-opener against Georgia Southern. He had played a total of 14 minutes all season in five games, and never more than six minutes. His first game action was against Kentucky. The most noteworthy event of his two minutes in that game was Kentucky’s Alex Poythress dunking on him.
The short stints started to wear on him. “For me, it was just a mental thing, just going out there and playing as hard as I can as soon as I get out there,” Murphy said. “It’s not coming in the game worrying about, all right, I have to hit a three or I have to get a shot off. The little things like deflecting a ball, taking a charge grabbing an offensive or defensive rebound: focusing on those things has helped me sort of play looser and not worry about having to hit a shot or something like that.”
But he saw 21 minutes of action against Delaware on Saturday, scoring a career-high ten points to go with seven rebounds, a steal and an emphatic block. At first, every moment seemed to be a make-or-break for him. In the first half, he played eight minutes, missed two three-pointers and got one rebound. On his first touch of the second half, he was whistled for a travel. He looked at his feet and back at the referee in disbelief, crestfallen.
The crowd was on edge waiting for him to make a play. Some of the Cameron Crazies screamed out spontaneously, “Hit Murph!” or “Get Murph a shot!” Whenever a shot would miss, or he’d turn it over, one would yell, “It’s all right, Murph! Keep your head up!” But he scored his first points as a Blue Devil with 11:21 remaining to give Duke a 38-point lead, and the roof over Cameron Indoor Stadium nearly ripped clean off.
And the Crazies aren’t his only advocates. Point guard Quinn Cook has never been reluctant to talk on or off the court, and he’s been in Murphy’s ear constantly, along with junior guard Tyler Thornton. “You always want to let him know that he’s big for us. We need him,” Cook said. “When we’re not telling him that, his confidence could go down or anything could happen, or he could probably doubt himself.
“Me and Tyler especially have been on him: just keep working, we really need you. We’ve been his biggest cheerleaders. It’s good for him to really get his confidence up this game. … Just to get him out there and get him showing a glimpse of what he can do every day is a big thing. He’s leaving this game better.”
It’s still worth pointing out that Krzyzewski is not going to manufacture depth. He has about seven guys that he feels are ready to play – his normal starters, Josh Hairston and Thornton – and that’s about it. Murphy and Amile Jefferson, a freshman who also saw 21 minutes (and had 12 points), both had nice games against Delaware. But for Krzyzewski it doesn’t mean anything beyond that at this point.
Duke’s remaining non-conference schedule will have some games like this Delaware game where those two could, in theory, see some playing time. But that’s not necessarily going to be the case. “For me, the main guys to develop are Mason (Plumlee), Ryan (Kelly), Seth (Curry). This is not like an AAU team or whatever. You have to make sure your group understands its role,” Krzyzewski said.
“Mason’s role this year is different than last year. He has to get a lot of minutes. To see Alex and Amile and Josh (Hairston) play so well today, that’s great. But it doesn’t mean that we’re going to get this wave of substitutions and stuff like that.”
Krzyzewski said that all of his players follow a different developmental path, but that he is always honest with all of them about where they are. “They all have development to go through, and they have to develop under people that they trust. And if you tell them the truth all the time, they have a better chance of trusting you,” Krzyzewski said.
“Each guy is on his own race of becoming better. They’re running their individual races while we’re collectively running a race. The collective race is much more important than your individual race, and you can’t compare your race with another guy.
“Ryan Kelly hardly played his freshman year. Ryan Kelly is a heck of a player right now, and has been. So the example of doing it that way, making sure that they know that we believe in them and we do believe in the kid.”
His approach seems to be working. Jefferson, who has never shown the visible uncertainty of Murphy during his minutes, said that neither player has let it affect them. Both knew that because Seth Curry missed the game with an ankle injury, they might see more time. And both were ready.
“We’re both two confident guys. I don’t think we’ve lost confidence,” Jefferson said. “We might have been a little frustrated at times, but we kept our heads and we know that when our number’s called, we can get out there and make things happen. We’ve just got to keep working and keep knowing that one day, your number will be called and you’ve got to be ready.”
It’s difficult to properly capture the biting, acerbic wit of Krzyzewski because it’s impossible to transcribe the dryness of his humor. (The background needed for some of this exchange was this question asked earlier by a reporter: “How hard is it, even for a legendary coach, to get players that have been told since they probably were in junior high that they’re destined for greatness to become role players and to respond?”)
Reporter: How would you assess your team’s defense?
Krzyzewski: Good, real good. How would you do it?
Reporter: I think real good.
Krzyzewski: Yeah, me too. So we’re in agreement. You have no conflict with a legendary coach. Was it easy for you accept that from me?
Krzyzewski: Then it was easy for me to have this talk like this in front of everybody. I’m just trying to show you, that’s how I would do it. I go in and say, ‘Do you realize you’re playing for a legendary coach?’ (Laughter.) No, I don’t do that.
And Krzyzewski, now feeling it, kept rolling.
Reporter: You were talking about Alex Murphy.
Krzyzewski: You were talking about him.
Reporter: (Runs through Murphy’s numbers.) If you could maybe describe a little bit about how you feel about his play.
Krzyzewski: No, I feel good about everybody’s play. Everybody played well today. Everybody. Everybody. Not one guy played less well than another guy. They were terrific together.
The good times continued to roll, one after the other.
Reporter: Touching on the subject of Mason Plumlee and his development into his senior season, over the past couple of years, there’s been some criticism on (big man coach Steve Wojciechowski) Wojo. Do you feel like getting his due of credit for his development?
Krzyzewski: (Laughs.) Well, Wojo’s one of the best coaches in the world. You can ask – for the seven years that we’e worked with all the best players in the world, ask any of those guys if they wouldn’t want Wojo to coach them.
Reporter: Oh, and I’m not criticizing.
Krzyzewski: No, I’m just saying. So when somebody doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about and says something, why would you pay attention to it? Why would I pay attention to it?
Reporter: Do you feel like he’s getting his due credit?
Krzyzewski: He’s getting credit from me. I don’t know how if his wife feels good about him, what their relationship – I don’t know about that. He’s getting great credit from me. We’re a program that is scrutinized closely, and we’re okay. We’re big boys.
Delaware (2-5) at No. 2 Duke (7-0), 2:00 PM, RSN
What to watch: The minutes of Duke’s bench. Duke has seven players that Mike Krzyzewski trusts right now: his starters, Josh Hairston and Tyler Thornton. That’s it. Against Ohio State, freshmen Amile Jefferson and Alex Murphy played a combined six minutes. Coach K will not play a freshman for the sake of letting him learn if he’s not doing the right things in practice or in games. Games like today give Murphy and Jefferson a chance to prove they deserve minutes. Duke could use the depth, but Krzyzewski is not going to manufacture it.
Random Delaware facts: Monte’ Ross was hired as Delaware’s head coach in 2006, and it was the first time since the 1994 season that Delaware wouldn’t be coached by a former Mike Krzyzewski assistant. Current Notre Dame head coach and Krzyzewski assistant Mike Brey coached at Delaware from 1995-00. Former Duke guard (and assistant) David Henderson took over from 2000-06. …. Delaware still hasn’t played a home game this season, and won’t until December 4.
Prediction: Duke, 95-72. After Duke’s previous four-game stretch, this should be a breeze.
Miami (4-1) at Massachusetts (3-2), 2:00 PM, CBS SN
What to watch: Reggie Johnson. The senior center did not play against Jacksonville a few weeks ago because of a “sore tailbone”. After scoring 22 points against Stetson in the season-opener, he has 23 points total in three games since. Miami can win without him being a force, but it would be a lot easier if he could be more consistent.
Random Massachusetts facts: UMass is quite the stepping stone job. John Calipari, who took UMass to its only Final Four, left to go to the Nets in 1996. Bruiser Flint succeeded him, resigned in 2001 and went to Drexel, where he’s been since. Travis Ford was hired in 2005, had a good year and was snatched up by Oklahoma State. Steve Lappas is an interesting exception, hired in 2001 but basically let go in 2005. He had just one winning season. Before UMass, he took over at Villanova for his mentor, Rollie Massimino, who stopped speaking to him as a result. Also, people don’t seem to think he has the voice for his current job, a basketball analyst/studio commentator for CBS Sports Network.
Prediction: Miami, 73-61. I guess.
No. 15/17 Oklahoma State (5-0) at Virginia Tech (6-0), 2:00 PM, ESPN3
What to watch: Erick Green and Marcus Smart. Both have been spectacular this year. Smart hasn’t had a game as good as the one he had against NC State a few weeks ago (20 points, seven rebounds and seven assists), but he’s still been very good. And it appears that Virginia Tech’s up-tempo offense suits Green well.He’s averaging 24.3 points on 51% shooting. He has always put up a lot of points, but often had to take a lot of shots.
Random Oklahoma State facts: Pistol Pete might have a freakishly large head and creepy expression, but the character he’s based on is beyond awesome. Frank “Pistol Pete” Eaton(1860-1958) saw his father murdered by “lawless former Confederates” when he was eight years old, so he basically tracked them all down and killed them. And he killed two of them before he turned 17. He also used to pick up lumps of coal with his feet.
Prediction: Oklahoma State, 81-80. Virginia Tech can win, but their defense is probably not far enough along yet. It should at least be a very entertaining game.
Green Bay (3-3) at Virginia (5-2), 4:00 PM, RSN
What to watch: UVa’s point guard situation. Senior point guard Jontel Evans is still coming back from injury, but freshman Teven Jones also made a somewhat recent return to the lineup (after suspension). UVa is 4-0 with Jones, and the freshman is averaging 6.3 points, 2.5 assists and a steal per game. Evans played 16 minutes against Wisconsin and didn’t score or record an assist. It’s going to be a process for him before he’s fully healthy, but Jones should still factor into the rotation.
Random Green Bay facts: Until Elon came along and ruined it, Green Bay was the only school to use the Phoenix as its mascot. That became the team name in 1970 after a schoolwide vote. But the alleged runner-up name, “Fighting Tomatoes”, would’ve been ever better. … This is a personal game for UVa head coach Tony Bennett, as Green Bay is both his and his father Dick Bennett’s alma mater.
Prediction: Virginia, 71-45. The Cavaliers have looked better and better since some of their pieces have returned to the lineup, and the win at Wisconsin on Wednesday night was big.
UAB (4-3) at No. 14/13 North Carolina (5-2), 6:00 PM, ESPNU
What to watch: UNC’s veterans. For the Tar Heels to have success this season, their older players must play better. In the blowout loss at Indiana, no one seemed able to step up and make a play. James Michael McAdoo struggled (4-of-15 shooting), but his three older teammates – Reggie Bullock, Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald – combined to shoot 9-of-24 and 0-of-4 from three. Bullock and McDonald were just 3-of-14, and Bullock in particular has been a non-factor too much this year. He’s used to deferring, but he simply can’t anymore.
Random UAB facts: UAB’s mascot is a dragon named….Blaze. No really, that’s its name. But perhaps the best-loved mascot was Beauregard T. Rooster, who performed at games from 1979-92. The San Diego Chicken sued for some sort of infringement. Seriously.
Prediction: North Carolina, 81-67. UAB’s squad is coached by former North Carolina assistant Jerod Haase in his first year as a head coach. The Blazers have been competitive against some good teams, and they won’t be afraid. But UNC should win this game at least somewhat comfortably.
Wake Forest (3-3) at Richmond (5-2), 6:00 PM
What to watch: Can Wake Forest play any defense? All signs point to ‘no’. Wake’s opponents this year are shooting 46% and averaging 74.2 points (in low-possession games). Offensive juggernauts like William and Mary and Nebraska have torched the Deacons’ defense so far this season. So a team that actually is pretty good offensively in Richmond shouldn’t have many problems. But if Wake Forest wakes up defensively, this game could at least be close.
Random facts: The question everyone wants to know: why the Spiders? Well, because of legendary pitcher Puss Ellyson’s “lanky arms and stretching kick”, of course! Oh. Also, Richmond revamped the mascot’s appearance in 2011 because fans were complaining that the mascot didn’t have eight legs. They should have complained that it looked like a ladybug:
Prediction: Richmond, 72-58. Go ACC!
Clemson (4-2) at South Carolina (5-2), 12:00 PM, ESPNU
What to watch: Clemson’s newcomers. In the loss to Purdue, Clemson’s freshmen (Adonis Filer and Jordan Roper) and transfer DeMarcus Harrison combined to shoot 4-of-17 from the floor. Without Milton Jennings, an offensively-challenged Clemson squad can’t afford to have those guys disappear, even against a bad South Carolina team.
Random facts: The costumed rooster we see today, “Cocky”, is supposedly the son of the original, “Big Spur”. He was booed off the field in his first appearance because fans thought he was “not dignified enough”. Please, try to suppress your laughter. And South Carolina might have some of the most famous/successful mascot alums of all time (at least in the mascot world) – the original Cocky, John Routh, later became Billy the Marlin. Tommy Donavan went on to be Sir Purr for the Carolina Panthers.
Prediction: Clemson, 64-57. It wouldn’t shock me if Clemson dropped this one – they’ve lost to bad South Carolina teams before – but with the exception of the Purdue loss, Clemson has looked pretty good and competitive all year.
Mercer (3-4) at Florida State (4-2), 2:00 PM, ESPN3
What to watch: Michael Snaer. As he goes, so go the Seminoles. In their losses, he shot 5-of-20 (2-of-8 from three). In wins, he shot 46.3% (11-of-21 from three) and averaged 17.5 points. If he struggles and his teammates do too, this is the type of game FSU can lose. But if they’ve come as far as they seem to have come since their season-opening South Alabama loss, they should win this one easily.
Random facts: Mercer originally became known as the Bears when they played Georgia in a football game in 1892. The Mercer players had handlebar mustaches and long hair. When they came out on the field, a spectator said, “Whence cometh that bear?”
Prediction: Florida State, 84-69. This Mercer team almost beat Wake Forest at Wake earlier this year. The key word is “almost”.
Maryland (5-1) vs. George Mason (5-2), 5:00 PM (Washington, DC)
What to watch: Can Maryland ever force turnovers? Whether it’s through a combination of bad luck, defensive strategies or really careful opponents, Maryland is forcing just 9.8 turnovers a game (6.8 a game in the last four). If they’re ever going to force any, now is the time: George Mason is turning it over on 22.3% of its possessions, according to Ken Pomeroy, which is 227th nationally. They can win without forcing them, and it’s probably just a statistical anomaly, but it’s bizarre to say the least.
Random facts: The leading scorer in George Mason history was Carlos Yates, who was killed at age 27 in a drug-related shooting. And just so everyone knows that people have been writing borderline-controversial columns for a long time now, this guy seemed to think he was asking for it?
Prediction: Maryland, 72-60. The Terrapins were impressive in their dismantling of Northwestern on the road last week. George Mason is a pretty good team, but not a great one, and they should make relatively easy work of Paul Hewitt’s squad.
ACC/Big Ten Challenge: 6-6
Last week: 15-9
Virginia (4-2) at Wisconsin (4-2), 7:00 PM, ESPN2
What to watch: ….. No seriously, while the pace of this game is not to my personal liking, it should be an intriguing matchup of styles between two slow-paced coaches who try to make it as difficult as possible on their opponents defensively while being as efficient as they can on offense. So we’ll see if that works out.
Random Wisconsin facts: Wisconsin used a live badger mascot in the 1940s, but – as you might imagine – with live animals, there are sometimes problems. Turns out, the badger didn’t like football and would often try to bite everyone in sight, even escaping its handlers a number of times. And so they replaced him with a raccoon named “Regdab” (which is “badger” backwards). There are no stories of it attacking anyone. But it was only a matter of time.
Prediction: Wisconsin, 45-38. I’m not trying to be funny with this prediction. Well, maybe a little. But how could this game go any other way?
Purdue (2-3) at Clemson (4-1), 7:15 PM, ESPNU
What to watch: How will Milton Jennings’ absence affect Clemson? The Tigers’ leading scorer might be running out of chances at Clemson – he’s been suspended multiple times in the past few years, and he’ll be suspended for tonight’s game after an arrest for marijuana possession. Without Jennings, there’s only one player 6-9 or taller available for Clemson – the 6-10 rarely-used freshman Landry Nnoko. Purdue has struggled this year, but they have plenty of big bodies – four are 6-9 or taller. Not to mention Clemson will have to find a way to replace his scoring.
Random Purdue facts: Creepy Purdue Pete is not Purdue’s official mascot. No, that’s a Boilermaker Special (a train). It’ resembles a Victoria-era locomotive that is still operated today. A miniature model of it still shows up at football games. And hey, not many mascots can say they’ve damaged a police car.
Prediction: Purdue, 63-55. Purdue has lost three games this year, but none of them were blowouts and both of their wins were by significant margins. Clemson without Milton Jennings is more likely than not a team that’s not capable of scoring enough points.
No. 13/14 Michigan State (5-1) at Miami (3-1), 7:30 PM, ESPN
What to watch: How will Shane Larkin play on a national stage? Shooting guard Durand Scott is back in the lineup for Miami after a three-game suspension, but even before his return, Larkin has been great. The sophomore point guard is averaging 17.3 points on 58% shooting, dishing out 4.5 assists per game. He is averaging 3.5 turnovers, but he’s upped his minutes to over 36 a game and he’s had to carry the load offensively as essentially the Hurricanes’ most consistent player so far. He’ll be facing off against Michigan State’s junior point guard Keith Appling, who’s the Spartans’ best player. He’s averaging 16.8 points and shooting 47% from the floor, and he’ll be a tough cover for Larkin. But Larkin will challenge Appling as well.
Random Michigan State facts: “Sparty” is perhaps best known for his cameo in one of the best “This is SportsCenter” ads, where he helps carry Kerri Strug across the newsroom.
Oh, and Draymond Green (who graduated last year after a productive eight-year stint at Michigan State) earns points for admitting that as a kid, he was terrified of Sparty.
Prediction: Michigan State, 74-61. Hmm. A Tom Izzo-coached team going into a far-from-intimidating road environment, against a team that has already lost to Florida Gulf Coast? Yeah, I’ll take the Spartans, even in a down year.
Georgia Tech (4-1) at No. 22 Illinois (7-0), 9:00 PM, ESPN2
What to watch: Georgia Tech’s veterans. Ask North Carolina how it worked out for them last night when they went into a hostile road environment and their veterans didn’t play well. Georgia Tech’s veterans have been fine – Mfon Udofia is averaging 10.2 points and Kammeon Holsey is averaging 10.6 – but Daniel Miller, Brandon Reed and Jason Morris have been virtually invisible this season. Miller in particular, who ended last season well, is averaging 5.6 points on less than 50% shooting. The Yellow Jacket freshmen have been impressive, but it would be asking a lot of them to carry the team at Illinois this early in their careers.
Random Illinois facts: Everyone knows Illinois as the Fighting Illini, and while that is still their official mascot, they no longer use the official manifestation (Chief Illiniwek). When the NCAA began cracking down on Indian mascots, Illinois got the dreaded “hostile and abusive” tag and was forced to get rid of it in 2007. There is some controversy about whether or not the mascot offended the local Sioux tribe, who it was intended to honor, and the students have continued to keep the mascot alive as best they can at sporting events.
Prediction: Illinois, 71-59. The Illini are ranked this season after cruising through the Maui Invitational field. Their best win so far is Butler, but other than a one-point win over Gardner-Webb a few days after getting back to the mainland, they’ve beaten everyone convincingly. Georgia Tech has improved quite a bit, as they showed by hanging with Cal and knocking off St. Mary’s last week in Anaheim, but they’re not ready to win this game yet.
Boston College (2-4) at Penn State (3-2), 9:15 PM, ESPNU
What to watch: How healthy is Ryan Anderson? BC’s leading scorer has struggled on a sprained ankle the last few weeks, and it’s shown in BC’s results. After blowing out FIU and narrowly losing to a then-ranked Baylor team, the Eagles looked great, and so did Anderson. They’ve lost three of four since, including a game to Charleston that he didn’t play in due to the injury and a home game to Bryant (he shot 4-of-14). If he’s not healthy enough for BC to beat a team like Bryant – at home – he’s certainly not going to be capable of helping carry the Eagles to a win at Penn State.
Random Penn State facts: Penn State’s head coach Patrick Chambers might look like your typical middle-aged coach, but he’s pretty hardcore. About ten years ago, he was jumped in a bar and stabbed in the neck with a broken vodka bottle. He still has the bag of bloody clothes and shoes he was wearing the night it happened, and he’s been known to break it out on occasion and show it to his players.
Prediction: Penn State, 61-53. I’m sorry, Boston College. I still have a deep amount of affection for you, but I can no longer trust you.
No. 4 Ohio State (4-0) at No. 2 Duke (6-0), 9:30 PM, ESPN
What to watch: How far has Duke’s defense really come? The Buckeyes have the No. 5 offense in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy. Last year, Duke went up to Columbus and allowed Ohio State to shoot over 59% in an 83-65 loss, providing the first indication that their defense might not be up to normal Duke standards. Ohio State has always had one of the more efficient offenses in the country and plenty of athleticism in its lineup, and this year is no different. Louisville and Kentucky are the best teams Duke has played – Louisville is offensively-challenged at times, and Kentucky was/is inexperienced. This will be probably the toughest defensive test Duke will face heading into ACC play.
Quinn Cook vs. Aaron Craft. Duke’s sophomore point guard’s confidence is sky-high right now; the reigning ACC Player of the Week averaged 13.7 points, 4.8 assists and two steals per game in Duke’s three games in the Bahamas. Duke beat three very good teams in the Battle 4 Atlantis, and his knack for making big plays in key moments had a lot to do with that. He’s turning those flashes of potential into something consistent, and Duke feeds off his energy. But Ohio State feeds off of senior point guard Aaron Craft, too. A notoriously annoying defender, Craft is a coach’s son and all the normal clichés apply. Cook held his own just fine against Louisville’s Peyton Siva, and Craft will test him mentally as well.
Random Ohio State facts: Ohio State adopted the Buckeye (a type of nut from Ohio’s state tree) in 1965, and the first costume was made of papier-mâché that was basically an enormous head (see above picture). In 1975, a reworking of the costume with “a prune-like head” was unveiled, but booed off the field. The redesign was essentially the creepy Buckeye we see today.
Prediction: Duke, 85-78. It’s very difficult to win in Cameron, and the Blue Devils are a much better defensive team than they were a year ago. Even if they struggle at times to get stops, the momentum of the home crowd often helps them pick up their defensive intensity another notch. This team is full of enthusiastic defenders anyway, and they’ll feed off of the crowd to get stops in key moments.
ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Day 1: 3-3
Last week: 21-6